Fat Books & Thin Women


Fragile Things Readalong: Week 1

For the next month or so I’ll be participating in the read of Neil Gaiman’s story and poem collection, Fragile Things, run by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. This should be a fun read: just four stories or poems a week, with posts on those stories going up every Sunday. I may occasionally write about a Gaiman story I’ve read for my Story Sunday post as well, but I’ll keep the two posts separate, with the short story post going up later in the day.

One of the things I most like about Fragile Things so far is Gaiman’s introduction. While you can occasionally find an author writing about the process of writing a story (the literary magazine Glimmer Train and the annual Best American Short Stories anthologies come to mind), it’s rare to have such an extended look at an author’s writing process. Gaiman is such a personable guy that I couldn’t even get worked up over the fact that nearly all his short stories are written in response to requests from magazines and anthologies. Man! Some people have all the luck! (Disregarding the years Gaiman has put into his writing career, and his obvious talent.) He also hides a short story in here, one that is more a fable than a story and works well hidden between Gaiman’s writing on his writing process.

The first story in Fragile Things is “A Study in Emerald.” Gaiman’s narrator is a recently returned veteran from a war in Afghanistan, badly injured in his shoulder, seeking someone with whom he can share lodgings. He ends up with a “consulting detective” of remarkable skill, eventually accompanying the detective on one of the cases he’s helping with. Gaiman is able to infuse this slightly off-kilter version of the world, in which England is renamed Albion and the blood of the gods is physically evident in royalty (who 700 years ago defeated humanity, and have ruled over them since, with the gods being Lovecraftian sorts of creatures), with a Sherlock Holmesian devotion to deductive reasoning. The narrator and the detective seek the murderer of a German royal visiting Albion. I am not sure how Gaiman manages it, but this story is clever and weird and somehow does bring together aspects of Sherlock Holmes with this alternate world. And though the narrator repeatedly proclaims that he is no writer and is merely doing the best he can with the story, his voice is in a perfect place between the narrator unschooled in writing and the professional author, as when he looks back on his earlier self while headed to the palace to see the Queen:

I put a hand in my pocket, pulled out a handful of coins – brown and silver, black and copper-green. I stared at the portrait stamped on each of them of our Queen, and felt both patriotic pride and stark dread. I told myself I had once been a military man and a stranger to fear, and I could remember when this had been the plain truth. For a moment I remembered a time when I had been a crack-shot – even, I liked to think, something of a marksman – but my right hand shook as if it were palsied, and the coins jingled and chinked, and I felt only regret.

At end, when we learn that the villians of this story are Holmes and Watson, that we’ve been reading about and sympathizing with the “bad guys” of Conan Doyle’s writing…well, from a lesser writer this might have seemed like a cheap and easy twist. From Gaiman it is perfect, a surprising way of looking at these characters who are such a part of our culture. I can’t help wondering what my reading of the story would have been if I were more familiar with Sherlock Holmes stories, or even with Lovecraft – if being more familiar with the characters would have made this reimagining of them even more fun.

The only problem with “A Study in Emerald”? It is such an extraordinary one that the following poem and story cannot approach its heights. “The Faery Reel” is a short poem about a self split between our world and the faery world, where a fairy lass keeps the narrator’s heart:

Until one day she’d tire of it, all bored with it and done with it
She’d leave it by a burning brook, and off brown boys would run with it.
They’d take it and have fun with it and stretch it lone and cruel and thin,
They’d slice it into four and then they’d string with it a violin.

A poem with some gorgeous images and suffused with regret and that will instantly recall, to anyone who’s read it, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

The collection’s third story, “October in the Chair,” is framed by a meeting of the seasons. October is in the chair this meeting, and so has the right to tell the final story of the night. Each story told somehow represents an aspect of the month doing the telling, and for October this means a story about a boy named The Runt who runs away, one day befriends and plays with a dead boy, and then must make a decision about whether to continue his traveling or to remain behind with his new friend, joining him in death. At story’s end the boy is about to enter a house, and not knowing what’s in it…that is what makes this story so scary, but when we come back to the seasons sitting around, preparing to disperse for another month, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed to come back to what I saw, then, as a frame distracting from the exceptionally creepy center of the story.

I’ve only read a few pieces by Gaiman but in each I’m amazed by the quality of his voice; his writing is never over-elaborate, but is able to take on the strangest worlds and situations with little apparent strain. Still, though, “October in the Chair” pales in comparison to “A Study in Emerald.” This is, and will always be, my problem with short story collections: I find one I love so much that no story in its vicinity can approach its heights, at least in my mind. Still, I’m excited to see what stories are next in Fragile Things. The only thematic constant in Gaiman’s writing seems to be a level of oddity and other-worldliness which makes his stories far more fun to read, and far more rewarding, than most.

Click here to see other responses to week 1 of the Fragile Things read!

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19 Comments

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I really enjoyed the Introduction, too. I loved finding out the inspiration behind all the stories. Now while I read through the book I will be flipping back to the intro to refresh my memory what the idea behind each story was.

Comment by Kailana

You know, I was thinking about that problem with “October in the Chair” — that I could have read just October’s story and enjoyed it tremendously. But I also love how Gaiman makes this stark contrast between the squabbling months and their not-as-good stories and then October busts out with this solidly creepy one. You can almost hear the other months sitting there silently, as absorbed as you are in the story! Well, I could, anyway. :)

Comment by Alison

I may return to this story and reread it with some closer attention to the impact the listeners within the story has on how I read October’s story. I’m not often a fan of framing devices like the one Gaiman uses in this story, but I can imagine how listening to the story and actually hearing the months telling pieces of their own stories, squabbling a bit, then settling down to listen to this one story, would be interesting & maybe even enhance my experience of the central story.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I agree! Having the story within a story makes October’s story stand out so much more. I don’t think it would have had the same impact if it were on its own.

Comment by Grace

ok, now i definitely need to go back and reread!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Nicely done.

I share your feelings about how some short stories eclipse and make pale others which is certainly one of the reasons I had no desire to have us rush through this group read. I wanted us to be able to savor the ones we liked and to mull over the ones we didn’t without some pressing need to get on to the next story.

In some ways I think the bookend story of the months takes a bit of the edge off of the truly horrible situation that Donald finds himself in. And I like that it does that. I don’t mind how creepy it is, but it could become absolutely horrible if it just sat out there on its own. I also like that Gaiman plays the role of the critic to some degree, with the commentary from a few of the other months on October’s story. I wonder if Gaiman originally meant Donald’s story to stand on its own but felt it wasn’t quite working and then wrote the month’s around it?

I love Susanna Clarke’s short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, but have yet to finish Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, much to my own chagrin.

I believe A Study in Emerald was written to go into a Lovecraft/Holmes collection called Shadows Over Baker Street and while I agree with you that Gaiman’s story could be but is not gimmicky I would be afraid the collection would be and so I’ve never had a desire to read the rest of it.

Comment by Carl V.

Right, this week I rushed through the stories – once I started I couldn’t stop myself from reading through the four for today. For next week I think I’ll read just one piece a day and give each story or poem a little space.

Of the few things I’ve read by Gaiman (and this number will be going up – the guy is GOOD), I’ve found myself thinking, repeatedly, that no other writer could pull off what he does. I wouldn’t want to see an anthology of Lovecraft/Holmes inspired stories, but I would be curious to see Gaiman do…well, pretty much whatever he wants to do. I’m amazed by the way he takes these odd match-ups (like in “Snow, Glass, Apples”, vampires + snow white, told from the perspective of the woman we’ve always viewed as the witch) and is able to add something to the original stories he’s playing with, through his reimaginings of them.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I feel the same way. I am always in awe of his talent, both with things he creates out of his own imagination and the ways in which he uses other stories and builds something quintessentially “Gaiman” out of it. He has quite the imagination. “Snow, Glass, Apples” is a great example of a tremendous Gaiman story. It does so much and it so engaging. Love that story.

Comment by Carl V.

“Snow, Glass, Apples” was one of the first Gaiman short stories I ever read (being only familiar with his longer works) and I was so in love with it, I passed it around to everyone I know and proceeded to read it about a dozen times. I’m finding that I have yet to find a story in this collection I love quite as much, but I really like your idea, Ellen, of taking one story a day and allowing them room to breathe.

Gaiman has long been one of my favorite authors exactly because he doesn’t write the same story twice, and yet everything he does is still so remarkably him. Thanks for great thoughts on the first group read installment!

Comment by Chelsea

I actually love that Neil Gaiman made “October in the Chair” a story within a story of sorts. Mostly because I love how he characterizes the months (I can’t think of them any other way, now). I also really like “A Study in Emerald”… for so many reasons. I must read some Lovecraft, now (I almost didn’t understand my own interpretation of the story until I read Neil Gaiman’s intro about how he was fusing Lovecraft and Holmes).

Comment by Sharry

Hmm… I must have missed that twist at the end of Emerald, though I’m so unfamiliar with Sherlock Holmes that that will have to be remedied. I think I liked the outer and inner stories of October equally – the one so unexpected and pleasing, and the other so sad and creepy that they well balanced each other.

Comment by Jennifer Maurer

Funny, being very familiar with Holmes (reread a lot of Conan Doyle over the past couple of years) and rustily familiar with Lovecraft (haven’t read him in something like 20 years), I read A Study in Emerald and thought, “Well, how can it get better than that? It will have to all be downhill from here.” But, being familiar with both Ray Bradbury and Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, I came away from October in the Chair, thinking, “Ahhh, that’s how it can get better.” For some inexplicable reason (too much under the influence of the likes of Lord Dunsany and Hope Mirrlees?) I didn’t make the connection, but you’re so right about Clarke and “The Faery Reel.”

Comment by Emily Barton

Isn’t it great when you can be surprised like that? I love it when that happens.

Comment by Carl V.

In the discussions of these stories so many people have mentioned reading Gaiman’s novels (especially The Graveyard Book) as adding to what they get out of these stories. I love that – I mean, I wish I got more out of all these stories right now, but I like the idea of coming back to this reading in a few years and having a totally different experience because I’ve read more of Gaiman’s work. (Because I definitely will.)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Well, it can be both good and bad to have read other Gaiman. I’ve read four of the Sandman collections, and so far, I’ve found myself reading every single one of the works in this book thinking, “Wow! That would make a great graphic story/novel/poem.” It can be a bit distracting, but, obviously, not so much so that it takes away from the enjoyment.

Comment by Emily Barton

Like Emily, I found October in the Chair to be even more compelling than A Study in Emerald. But I was you three years ago, with this book as one of my first reads of his and I felt the opposite toward these stories. I guess that having read so many of his other works really has changed the way I feel about these stories.

Comment by Kristen M.

Gaiman is the first “new” author I’ve started in a while…most of my other reading right now is either stuff by authors who have written one or two books, so don’t have that intimidating backlist of gaiman’s, or they’re writers I’m familiar with. So it’s interesting, strange, kinda disconcerting, to feel like I’m missing so much in these stories that I could pick up if I were just more familiar with his work; but also exciting. Right now I’m so excited to read his novels, in part because everyone keeps mentioning them and how they’ve changed and improved their readings of the stories.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

“Snow, Glass, Apples” is great, but the Smoke and Mirrors collection, like this one, is filled with some stunning stories. Its first story, Chivalry, remains one of my all-time favorite short stories and it is one I passed around to family and friends, even those who don’t normally like that kind of story.

Comment by Carl V.




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